Movie Name: American Splendor
Studio: Good Machine
Genre(s): Comic Book/Drama/Comedy
Release Date(s): January 20, 2003 (Sundance)/August 15, 2003 (US)
MPAA Rating: R
Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is the average man to a fault. Working as a clerk at the Cleveland VA, Harvey plods through his life day-in and day-out. When he meets an up-and-coming comic book artist named R. Crumb (James Urbanaik), Harvey realizes he could be a comic book writer as well, but with no interest in superheroes, Harvey realizes his life is all he needs to write about. Harvey’s adventures in comic books take him from Cleveland to Late Night with David Letterman, but Harvey remains the average man…with a marriage to a woman named Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) coming out of the comics, life seems to be potentially looking up. Unfortunately, Harvey Pekar never gets a break.
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor is a biopic that is also an adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comic book series and his 1994 standalone book Our Cancer Year which was co-written by his wife Joyce Brabner. The film was released to critical acclaim and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
American Splendor really played with comic books. It wasn’t a superhero, a crime book, a Western, or any other genre of comic at the time. American Splendor was a book about a guy in an everyday life…and the movie captures this everyday life.
The movie has a strange quality to its storytelling. The movie is mostly a biopic with the real Harvey Pekar narrating a fictional Harvey Pekar who is telling his life story. Pekar always championed the mundane, but through the course of the movie, Pekar’s life quit being mundane whether he believed it or not. The character is angry but you can’t believe his anger a lot of the time…he’s a guy who likes to complain and has come to realize that complaining is his bread-and-butter. The relationship between Pekar and his wife Joyce really paints a more accurate Harvey and the script smartly has you trying to piece together who Harvey Pekar really is.
It is Paul Giamatti who really drives and embodies Pekar. He gets that look when he knows he’s going to play with a person and unleash his anger. He is paired with Hope Davis who is good as the paranoid-sickness fearing Joyce who keeps Harvey balanced, but sometimes regrets rushing into marriage. As mentioned, it is the real life Harvey Pekar and his real life friends that really round out the movie and give the movie the extra layer it needs and also demonstrate the skill of the actors portraying them.
The movie also has a unique look due to the layers. Sometimes the film turns into a comic, but it is the scenes where the movie breaks down in the real life shooting set that I enjoy. The shot of Paul Giamatti and Judah Friedlander watching the real Harvey Pekar and Toby Radloff shows the oddity of the film, but captures the idea of the comic being a reflection of real life. It is a great visual blending.
American Splendor is a unique film. It is the type of film that can be shown to people who say they don’t like “comic book movies” as a reminder that comic books aren’t all heroes and capes, but the angst captured in comic books does have real life equivalents. American Splendor is different type of comedy with a surprisingly touching resolution showing everyone can find happiness if they look for it.